On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, David Bowie’s “Heroes”, written and recorded at Hansa Studios just a few hundred yards from the Wall, remains a landmark recording and perhaps Bowie’s best-loved song.
It is also perhaps the best example of how music can be affected by the location it is written and recorded in: something that Dave Grohl is trying to demonstrate through the Foo Fighters’ new album and TV series “Sonic Highways”.
As Carlos Alomar said of being in Berlin in David Buckley’s book, “Strange Fascination”, “The air was thick with a darker vibe. ….we’re painting a picture based on our emotional disposition and you’re thinking: Germans, Nazis, the Wall, oppression. We asked them to open the curtains…and when they did that we saw…where the gunner is, and that was rather a rude awakening…it gave us a heavier resolve about the intensity of what we were doing”.
The “Heroes” sessions are perhaps best known for two reasons; the circumstances surrounding how the lyrics came together, and the recording technique that captured Bowie’s lung-busting performance.
Tony Visconti was the producer of “Heroes” and his 2007 autobiography describes the first story. Visconti had met a Berlin jazz singer, Antonia Mass in a nightclub and been impressed by her singing. Mass contributed backing vocals to album track “Beauty and the Beast” and Visconti and Mass had a brief affair. Says Visconti, “We went for a walk after David asked us to leave him for a few hours so he could finish the lyrics (to Heroes). As we walked in front of the Berlin Wall, which was very close to Hansa, we stopped and kissed. At that moment a lyrically frustrated Bowie was looking out of the studio’s control room studio….we were the couple that inspired,
“I can remember
By the wall
And the guns
Shot above our heads
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall.”
At the time Bowie diplomatically concealed Visconti’s identity (Visconti was married to Mary Hopkins when this event occurred) describing the inspiration at the time as coming from two young lovers but without revealing their identities, “I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the Wall? And I – using license – presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that Bowie admitted it was Visconti he saw. “Tony was married at the time, and I could never say who it was. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.” **
In addition to providing lyrical inspiration, the echoes that reverberated around Hansa’s high ceilings and huge hall in studio 2 provided the perfect atmosphere and acoustics for producer Tony Visconti to try something a little unusual:
“In a studio so full of reverberation it is common practice to seal off a singer between four removable walls. Instead I wanted to use it. So I set up three mics with electronic gates on them”.* The “gates” were designed to only “open” and thus allow the mics to become active once Bowie’s voice reached a certain volume.
Visconti explained, “We had a microphone about the customary nine inches from his face, then we had another microphone about twenty feet from himself, then we had another microphone about fifty feet away.”**
When you stand in the middle of studio 2, you can really picture the scene. The set up meant that for the microphone that was furthest away, Bowie really had to project as loudly as he could to activate it, and when he did so, the vocal showed off all the great acoustic properties of the hall. At the same time, the nearest microphone would still be able to pick up Bowie’s softest and most intimate vocal. Thus, in a single take Bowie could switch from whisper to howling wail, and it was this innovation that captured Bowie’s remarkable vocal performance so well.
Additional source: Tony Visconti – The Autobiography
Categories: Rock Music